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Religion Library: Judaism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Allan Nadler

While there is a variety of attitudes to, and religious interpretations of, human sexuality among both medieval and modern Jewish philosophers and mystics, there is no school of Jewish thought that advocates sexual abstemiousness in the name of any higher religious calling. While this positive attitude to human sexuality was generally beneficial to women, it did tend to prevent the emergence of women religious clerics, saints, or mystics, since Judaism rejected the very notion that a woman might abstain from her procreative duties to devote herself to a purely spiritual calling. On the other hand, the positive Jewish attitude to licit sexuality within the context of marriage resulted in Jewish law including, among the obligations of Jewish husbands, attending to the sexual satisfaction of their wives, an obligation considered on par with housing, physical protection, clothing, and financial support. title: a rabbi in CaliforniaWhile one of their earliest innovations was the initiation of "family-seating" at religious services—in contrast to the strict separation of the sexes in Orthodox services—it has only been since the last quarter of the 20th century that the Reform and Conservative movements have allowed for the ordination of women as rabbis. The first female Reform rabbi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1972; and it was only in 1983 that the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary ordained its first woman rabbi.  Since then, however, women have very rapidly risen in the ranks of Reform and Conservative rabbis and cantors. Today the numbers of women studying for both rabbinical ordination and cantorial diplomas at all the non-Orthodox seminaries exceed those of men.

While Orthodox Judaism does not sanction the ordination of rabbis and precludes women from chanting public services, within a small very liberal faction of Modern Orthodoxy, egalitarian congregations have begun to emerge. In these, women and men alternate in leading the services and preaching, although the women are not officially referred to as rabbis and cantors.  A few Orthodox synagogues in the United States and Israel today employ female "rabbinic interns," many of whose duties, such as teaching Torah and rendering halakhic decisions, are the same as those of traditional rabbis. In March 2009, the controversial Modern Orthodox rabbi and activist, Avi Weiss of Riverdale, New York, conferred the equivalent of rabbinical ordination upon a graduate of the Drisha Institute, an Orthodox women's seminary in New York City. While the future of women as spiritual leaders within Orthodoxy is impossible to predict with certainty, the gender-egalitarian trends of the larger society are clearly impacting this most traditional wing of Judaism.

While the established policy of the Reform movement has long been to ordain and employ in its congregations openly gay and lesbian persons as both rabbis and cantors, the status of homosexuals as religious leaders currently remains a matter of heated dispute within the Conservative movement. While the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America decided, in 2007, to ordain openly gay rabbis and cantors, the movement's synagogue council, the United Synagogues of America, has not enforced an equal employment policy with regard to gay clergy. Each congregation remains free to establish its own standards regarding the hiring of gay rabbis and cantors.

Orthodox Judaism, following the Levitical laws that unambiguously prohibit male homosexual relations and depict them as an "abomination," adamantly refuses to grant ordination to homosexuals or to employ openly gay clergy. 

Study Questions:
1.     How does time play a role in deciding the participation of women within the Jewish tradition?
2.     How do gender roles continue to influence segregation in Jewish worship?
3.     Describe the process of divorce within the Jewish community. Why might it seem one-sided?
4.     How is sexuality celebrated within Judaism?
5.     Are homosexuals welcomed within Jewish leadership? Explain.


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